by Simon Denison
Issue 60 Autumn 2009
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During the last century of photography there have been two or three times when the 'look' of photographic prints rapidly changed. The reversion to silver in the 1910s/20s after three decades of Pictorialist platinum, gum and oil was one such period. Another was the widespread adoption of colour by press, documentary and art photographers in the 1970s/80s. Future historians will almost certainly regard the 2000s as a similar period of change, although the effects of the digital printing revolution are much harder to pin down - at least for now.
The vast majority of photographic prints are now made digitally, in one way or another. Press, commercial and advertising photographers, of course, generally don't make prints; digital files are sent direct to a lithographic printing press. Virtually the entire amateur photography world is linked to desktop inkjets or digital minilabs, while social and event photographers selling prints direct to the public rely mostly on their inkjets or digital dye-sublimation printers. As for the art world, leading art printers such as Metro in London or Spectrum in Brighton report that 'almost all' colour printing for exhibiting artists is now made from computer files on digital printers - although there does seem to be a small resurgence in hand-printing of black-and-white. Even specialist hand-printing firms, such as Visions or Michael Dyer Associates, both in London, now incorporate digital procedures into their work. Has the look of prints changed as a result? Is it possible to judge whether digitally-made prints are now - potentially at least - better than traditional hand-prints, or worse? And how do the various types of digital print differ from one another? There is still a huge amount of controversy over all these questions, and no easy answers.
Two main types of digital print are available for exhibiting photographers: those made on traditional, light-sensitive photographic paper, colour or black-and-white, by RGB light-beaming machines reading digital files (Lambdas, Lightjets, and various other model names generically known as digital c-types); and those made by inkjet printers spraying pigment-based inks onto a variety of paper surfaces. The digital c-type process, which began to make an impact on the market in the mid-1990s, has changed little over that period. Machines have become more reliable with the replacement of lasers with LEDs as the main light source, but the appearance of the prints has not noticeably changed. The largest machines can now make prints up to 72" wide and any length. Until recently true monochrome prints from digital c-type machines were problematic, but in 2007 Ilford produced a silver gelatin fibre paper adapted for the RGB light source and claim that prints on this material are indistinguishable from hand-prints made in the darkroom.
In contrast to the relative stability of the digital c-type process, inkjet technology has seen dramatic development since the mid-1990s, in ink composition, range of inks used and paper types available. Inkjet printers were originally developed with CMYK dyes that faded within months, so 'pigmented' inks - pigment and dye mixtures - were gradually developed for greater permanence (pure pigment was tried but didn't work because of extreme metamerism, or colour shift in different lighting conditions). For some years the process was dogged by problems including restricted gamut, metamerism and the surface effect known as 'bronzing'; but these problems are generally thought to have been broadly overcome with the introduction of Epson's 8-colour (CcMmYKkk) Ultrachrome inkset in 2002. Recently the range of inks offered by top-end models has expanded still further, with orange and green in the latest Epsons, and red, green and blue in the latest HP and Canon printers. The largest models can print up to 64" wide and any length. The range of available papers is now enormous, including both fibre-based baryta papers resembling black-and-white handprints, and pure cotton rag.
Accelerated ageing tests conducted in bright light and high humidity by the Wilhelm Imaging Research corporation in the US give some indications of possible print longevity. Fuji and Kodak both claim that their digital c-type prints could last 100-200 years, but Wilhelm tests in 2004 suggested that digital c-type prints on Fuji Crystal Archive under glass may only last around 40 years. Similar tests on Epson, Canon and HP pigmented ink prints suggest they may last for between 60 and over 230 years depending on the paper. Whether c-types and inkjets will behave as predicted in real-world conditions, however, remains open to question.
So much for the bare facts; what do people think of digital prints? Professional printers canvassed for this article who have long experience printing for artists see advantages in the digital process but generally still regard inkjets with disdain. Fred Pryor, one of the founding partners of Michael Dyer Associates, says he dislikes inkjets 'with intensity' because the image lies entirely on the surface of the paper. Jean Lippett, at Visions, says that even the best-made inkjets have 'something slightly phoney about them' and 'lack subtlety'. Steve Macleod, creative director at Metro and a practising photographer, also refers to what he sees as the 'artificiality' of the inkjet colour space, and says that inkjets are less desirable for collectors and galleries than prints made on traditional paper for the simple reason that they are not photographs.
Macleod recognises the increased level of control and creative potential of using a computer rather than a darkroom to prepare images for printing and (unsurprisingly) advocates the digital c-type processes offered by his company as a way of enjoying the best of both worlds. But he also expresses the view - which will be shared by many - that the digital revolution has brought many changes for the worse, as well as for the better. The very power of digital controls, particularly when used on image files from high-end digital cameras, has produced a world of images that are super-real, 'digitally but not optically sharp', uniform and 'soulless'. The definition, 'depth' and 'texture' of a properly-exposed large sheet of film, he says, still cannot be matched by a digital image; and we have 'lost the acceptance of happy accidents' with the ability to delete images on the fly. 'For too many years we have seen digital as the great white hope for photography but there was actually nothing wrong with what we had. It wasn't broke so why try fixing it?'
Other printers, however, do point up areas of traditional printing that were 'broke' to some extent, and that have now been 'fixed'. Steve White at Spectrum notes that, with any digital printing process, photographers making editions can be guaranteed that every print will now be identical, and satisfactory, without having to supervise the printers every time a new print is required. Jean Lippett and Fred Pryor both describe the limitations of the traditional c-type colour process, which include fixed paper contrast and saturation, and compromised colour balance because only broad global adjustments were possible under an enlarger. All these limitations can now be overcome with digital help.
Lippett explains that she now often makes colour hand-prints from a negative, scans the prints on a flatbed, makes contrast and saturation adjustments in Photoshop and reprints the image on digital c-type paper. Scanning the print, she says, rather than the more usual process of scanning the negative, produces a finished print of greater tonal subtlety. Pryor, on the other hand, offers a service in which he drum scans film (or takes an original digital file), makes adjustments in Photoshop, creates a new negative on a Lightjet machine, and then hand-prints the new negative up to a maximum size of 9ft x 4ft. The difference between hand-printing the adjusted negative and printing the digital image file on Lightjet is, he insists, demonstrable. The image looks more photographic because (if it began as a digital file) it acquires film grain from the negative; it also has noticeably more three-dimensionality, he says, more 'life' and mid-tone contrast. He and his colleagues have thought long and hard about why the same digital file, printed on the same paper, should appear so different as a result of the two processes. 'We can't explain it - it just seems to be a kind of alchemy,' he says.
The advantages of incorporating digital processes into printing, when handled with skill and finesse, seem clear. Whether this means that digital printing has brought a general improvement in photographic printing, however, is a different matter. Photographers, coming out of the darkroom and into the computer room, are themselves adjusting to entirely new working practices, and some still lack the requisite suite of skills. Macleod and White both recall occasions when they have been asked to produce large digital c-type exhibition prints from faulty image files, or to match inelegantly produced test-prints from desktop inkjets. To a degree this mirrors the problems that printers used to face when asked to print from incompetently exposed and developed film; but the problems - where they exist - are now different ones, including over-sharpening, clipped highlights and shadows, over-adjusted colours and shadow casts. Where photographers are making their own prints on studio inkjet printers, without the help of professional printers, their results are as variable as their own skills.
How have collectors adjusted to the new digital era? According to the Photographers' Gallery, Britain's leading traditional photographic gallery and saleroom, buyers still generally prefer traditional prints because of a 'scepticism' with which anything digital is viewed. David Low, Print Sales Co-ordinator, says that buyers will usually accept digital c-type prints because of their essential similarity to traditional hand-made prints. But something has nonetheless been lost, he says, in the digital process - the uniqueness of the traditional photographic print. 'The idea that every print of a certain image can be exactly the same takes away some of the beauty of photography. No two traditionally made prints are ever exactly the same.' Buyers might accept digital c-types; but inkjets are a completely different matter, Low says. The Photographers' Gallery stocks some - Guy Tillim's, for example - but finds them much harder to sell. The problem is partly that they are simply not real photographs on light-sensitive paper. Their reputation for poor quality acquired in the early days of development is proving hard to shake. And the very ubiquity of inkjet printers in so many homes has led to a general devaluation of the medium. Inkjets are the 'lowest common denominator', Low says, pandering to the fear that photography is 'something easy, something that everyone can do'.
General commercial art galleries, however, with no history of specialising in photography and no hang-ups about technical processes, seem to be quite happy to exhibit and sell inkjets to their collectors. Earlier this summer, for example, Frith Street Gallery exhibited John Riddy's large inkjets (Source, 59), describing them as 'photographs' in the gallery statement but not specifying what type of photographic print they were. Ask the gallery for details, and they'd do a little research and tell you; but they seemed to regard the question as not significant. Currently the 'Metropolis' show at London's Jaggedart gallery contains two large inkjets by Stuart Redler, dwarfing in both scale and visual impact a number of smaller Lightjets in the same space. Andrea Harari, the gallery director, is unapologetic about selling the work. 'It is meticulous and beautifully made. If someone came in and had doubts about it, I'd simply rather they didn't buy.'
You might have thought that photographers with a background in darkrooms and film would share some of the Photographers' Gallery's scepticism about the non-photographic inkjet process - but for many exhibiting photographers this is simply not the case. Inkjets, many feel, have improved so enormously over recent years that they are now just as good as traditional fibre or c-type prints, while the digital process offers far greater control of the finished print than was ever possible in the darkroom. For these photographers, the advantages of inkjet over digital c-type printing include the far greater range of available paper surfaces, many of them with unique qualities of surface sheen, the total controllability of being able to produce exhibition prints from one's own studio, and the economic savings that follow. For just over £4000, for example, it is possible to buy the latest 11-ink 44" Epson printer - a sum that would buy you fewer than thirty 60"x40" Lambda prints from Metro, fewer than twenty-five 60"x40" c-types from Michael Dyer Associates at their 'standard' (non-supervised) service rates, or just over a dozen black-and-white fibre prints from Michael Dyer's at the same size. Inkjet-users would naturally have to pay for their inks and paper, but over the course of one or two years of printing, the savings involved in self-sufficiency are clearly enormous.
Redler, a former advertising photographer who made his own darkroom prints for 25 years, says that inkjet blacks can be just as deep, and inkjet tones just as subtle as those of a fibre print. Although many poor inkjet prints exist, the quality of a print depends, he says, entirely on the skills of the printer - just as it did in the old darkroom days. 'The critics of inkjet often seem to think traditional printing is a craft whereas inkjet printing only requires the printer to press a button, something I find laughable. Digital prints need working on in exactly the same way as darkroom prints do.'
Martin Parr has printed all his new work digitally for four years and describes the results from his current 12-ink printer as 'fantastic'. For Parr, the great change compared to 10 years ago is that prints are much more consistent across editions and (he believes) much more long-lasting. Given the superior archival qualities of pigmented inks, he says, galleries should be preferring to sell them over c-types. 'Which museum or collector would select a print which is less archival than another option?'
John Riddy has printed images through both inkjet and digital c-type processes and says he prefers his own carefully-made pigment prints, both for colour reproduction and paper base. But the critical advantage of inkjets is that the photographer can control the whole process. 'You do not have to make snap decisions. You can put up a test on the wall and stare at it for weeks on and off; you can also look at a range of prints in relation to each other. It makes a huge difference to the decisions you make.'
With so much controversy over digital printing, it would be helpful to have an objective or 'scientific' assessment of the relative merits of a c-type and an inkjet - for example, in terms of colour gamut. Unfortunately, such an assessment would be of limited value, according to Neil Barstow, a colour management consultant at colourmanagement.net, specialists in art and photo reproduction. Gamut, the range of colour available to a process, should theoretically be wider with an eight- or twelve-colour inkjet than with a three-colour (CMY) hand-print or (RGB) digital c-type, particularly because of the availability of black ink; but wider gamut does not necessarily make a more pleasing image, he says. Watercolour paintings, for example, have an extremely low gamut but are regarded by many as pleasing. Inkjet images can have a low gamut, as gamut depends on numerous factors including the type of paper used, and a print on a lower-gamut photo rag paper is not necessarily less pleasing than one made on a larger-gamut, more contrasty glossy photographic paper.
Moreover the colour accuracy of an inkjet print does not necessarily improve with the addition of more inks, because the inks are harder for the software to control, particularly in these early years while the technology is still immature. Accuracy, in any case, is problematic for any printing process. As Barstow points out, the luminance range and colour gamut of the real world are many times greater than anything that could be reproduced on paper. Strict accuracy is as unobtainable as it is probably undesirable.
Far more important than gamut in determining whether a print is pleasing or not, according to Barstow, is the use of Optical Brightener Additives in some papers, which absorb ambient UV light and give back light within the visible spectrum to make whites appear brighter and bluer. Prints on papers using OBAs may appear lively in a daylit gallery but when taken home to be hung under tungsten lighting, containing no UV, they suddenly appear lifeless. Prints on paper without OBAs will retain a more constant appearance regardless of the lighting. 'As I understand it, all Fuji and Kodak papers used in digital c-type printing come with OBAs. But if you use inkjet, you can choose a paper that doesn't have a brightener.'
Whether or not you like inkjets - and whatever your reason, nostalgic, aesthetic or theoretical - there seems to be broad consensus that they will increasingly dominate photographic printing as the years pass. Fred Pryor cites environmental reasons: c-types not only contain heavy metal, but also require a huge amount of water, and 'the wastage involved in the old technology is enormous'. Photography in countries suffering water shortages, such as Mauritius and India, is almost entirely digital as a result, he says.
Even more telling are the economic reasons, according to photographic artist Ori Gersht, Professor of Photography at the University for the Creative Arts. Issues of archival stability have been resolved, he says, quality is 'absolutely on par with the demands of practitioners', and the price of equipment has tumbled to such a degree that the existence of digital c-type printers - costing several hundred thousand pounds each, with huge service contracts on top - cannot be sustained in the long term. Equipment is mass-produced, and once a process can no longer be justified economically it disappears: witness the loss in recent years of dye-transfer prints, Cibachrome prints from transparency, Kodachrome film, Polaroids, numerous types of black-and-white paper, even cut sheets of Fuji c-type paper (although it is still made in rolls for labs). Even such digital equipment as drum scanners are becoming rarer as fewer commercial photographers work with film.
The advance of inkjet technology will open many new creative opportunities, Gersht says. In his own work he has been experimenting recently with a converted inkjet printer. Instead of paper moving through the machine, the ink nozzle mechanism moves over a flat surface, allowing Gersht to make prints on hard flat surfaces such as aluminium coated in gesso to produce an image 'with a real physical surface'. Another experimental inkjet technique adopted by some colleagues is the use of 3-D printers - normally used by product designers - to make art images on surfaces that are not flat. 'Inkjets will definitely take over,' he says. 'And it will be good.'
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